Bean sang quietly to herself, combing her sleek fur, and dawning her overcoat of brightly colored shells and sand dollars. From time to time she glanced above her head. The day had dawned early, and already soft threads of golden hue shown bright and clear, tangling into strange and familiar shapes before her eyes. A cormorant cried overhead, and the wind gusted across the open sea, leaving waves and ripples in it’s wake. Wind rattled the sea reeds that sheltered Bean and her family, and the young selkie’s song began to take on the rhythm of plant and wind and wave.
As the sun began it’s diurnal climb of the sky, joy filled Bean’s heart, for today she would be attending her first naming ceremony. Aisling, who so recently welcomed her first child into the world, had glowed with pride as she made the announcement of the Naming Day to her clan. And now that day had come.
“Are you ready to go, Bean?” her mother, Iona, called as she finished her delicious breakfast of shellfish. “You are in need of food, and I have yet to see your face in the kitchen! Hurry, or you will hunger.”
With a jolt, Bean came out of her reflections and finished the task of rendering herself presentable with swift efficiency. Her mother would have saved some shellfish for her, and she would see to it that today would not be the first to miss such a delicacy. “Beidh mé ansin anois díreach! I’ll be there right away!” She hollered back, gliding a moment later into the reedy cove where she and her family often made a meal. The long stringy kelp shielded the family from the eyes of sharks, as well as bears and people, who might seek harm on them.
Iona wondered to herself whether now would be the time to tell her daughter of the elders’ decision as they had a moment alone. Arán, Bean’s father, had decided to travel ahead for there was opportunity then to speak with one of his closest friends—an opportunity that did not arise as often as wished. Alone with her daughter now, however, Iona could not coax the shy and difficult words she wished to say into streams of coherent thoughts, let alone into the more structured permanence of speech. Besides, she mused, Bean looked so beautiful and radiant, the light dancing in her eyes betraying her excitement, as she moved gracefully with the transient playfulness of a child. Eithne’s pronouncement would have to wait, and this seemed well enough, as the telling of it would be apt to weigh down the heart of the girl just as it had her own.
Instead, mother and daughter laughed and spoke aimiably as they made their way to the Naming, finding friends to travel with along the way. A new child was a gift and an honor, no matter whose child, no matter if it was a selkie’s first or fifth. On this spring day, with the sea gulls soaring above them and endless depths of water beneath them, there could be no thoughts of grave and weary things. All such had flown with the dawn, and the song of sea and sky effortlessly pervaded all spaces so that sorrow’s shadow could not linger, and any anticipation was purely the possession of that poignant possibility of life anew which a newborn brings with her into the world.
And so it was, that the friendly group chattered and laughed among themselves, speaking of their own children’s namings and that bone deep validation that came from hearing the name of their child spoken aloud in a chorus of welcome. And it was in coming up to the gathering at last, that all laughter halted at once.
A cold clamby grief was settling on the gathered selkies, as if rain clouds were plucked from the sky and dropped without care on top of them each, so that their tails drooped and their fur flattened dully and covered itself in meaningless grey, the kind that is empty and hollow and too depleted to keep up any appearance of lustre. And it was clear to Bean and her companions that something was dreadfully wrong, for where the child should have nestled itself within the special bed of water reeds the women had all prepared for it, there the emptiness lay the heaviest. The child was not there.
Distressed, Bean tugged on her mother’s flipper. “What is wrong, ma?” she whispered in earnest.
“I do not ken,” her mother answered, unable to hide the fear encroaching on her voice, “But hush now, we shall hear from the elders soon enough.” Yet even as she spoke to soothe her daughter, Iona could not quell the unease steeling over her. Whether the elders would decide to proclaim the truth about the whereabouts of the child, Iona knew not. She knew enough to trust that whatever the elders said would be best for the clan, but also knew well enough that veracity did not always coincide with what is best.
Anois, fan go fóil agus ná bac leis, mo leanbh, now wait yet a moment and do not worry my child, for Bean kept the truth higher than all things, including the pronouncements of elders, and children have a way of picking out a falsehood which many older folk have lost throughout in their growing and becoming. So it was that when stillness crept over the crowd like a fierce and fecund fog, and the elders announced that the selkie child was dead, a sharp chill ran through young Bean’s body and she realized she had not believed a word of it. Why she did not, she could not say, but that the elders lied she had no doubt, and she began to wonder what to do with this disturbing realization.
As it happened, ó am go ham, from time to time, Bean was not always out playing with the other children, without care and concern, wiling away her childhood in laughter and games. Sometimes she was found off by herself, brooding and staring off into the distance, and would not break her reverie until someone, usually her mother, shouted her name at least five times. No one guessed her thoughts, but they were in fact of the distance quite literally. For Bean remembered infant children who everyone else seemed to have forgotten, who had inexplicably vanished, whose names were never spoken again. Sometimes the same mysterious fate would befall an older child, and it would be said that the sharks had their way with the unfortunate little one. Bean had tucked these observations away and kept them a secret, for surely to speak of them would greatly displease her family, not to mention the elders who would see to her punishment for her questioning of their judgments.
Anois, now, Bean stared blankly at the empty bed of water reeds and the even emptier stretch of water beside it where the child’s mother would have swum. Strange, Bean thought suddenly, that the mother of the child is not here to announce the child’s death herself. It was an honor, albeit a bitter one, to allow a mother the last words for her babe who never made it to a naming. Had the elders forgotten this custom in their own sadness and pain? Bean thought not. Then why was the mother not there with the clan… unless…
“Ma?” Bean asked, her voice shaking with the horror of the question she was about to ask, “Why can we never speak of the edge? Where is Aisling? What if…”
Bean’s mother splashed the surface of the water so hard that it made the child flinch and hastily swim a bit out of distance. “Dún a bhéal agus bí ciúin! An gcloiseann tusa?” she roared in a whisper. “Shut your mouth, and be quiet, you hear? If I ever hear you say such a thing again!”
Bean lingered stunned in the water near the outer circle of the gathered selkies for a moment, terrified to disobey her mother and pay the penalty, and terrified to stay where she was and wonder, always wonder, at the pieces of what happened that did not fit together, at what really happened and whether there was still time. The clan was taught that nothing left the mainstream alive, that monsters lurked across the current, that no one should ever go to or speak of the edge accept for in prophecies. But what of the missing children? What of Aisling’s unnamed child? For an undead child who could not receive a naming, if such was possible, would be given a fate worse than death. Bean could not bear the thought of doing nothing at all, not with stakes being as high as they were, if there were any hope yet having, that the child might be recovered to her family.
What Bean did next would change her life, and the lives of her clan, forever. She surfaced to take a deep breath, closed up her ears and nose to keep out the sea, and dove out of site. She would not surface again until she came to the edge.